Sign of the Labrys

Sign of the Labrys
Margaret St. Clair | Bantam Books | 1963 | 139 pages

Science fiction and witchcraft mix in this post-apocalyptic quest that reads like a progression of video game levels, although written over a decade before the appearance of the earliest gaming consoles.

After a yeast-based plague kills ninety percent of the human race, a handful of survivors have created the foundation of a subterranean civilization in a series of underground bunkers originally designed for shelter from a nuclear war. An aftereffect of the plague causes the survivors to experience a sense of growing revulsion in the prolonged presence of other people.

Sam Sewell’s life of menial labor–arbitrarily moving boxes back and forth between warehouses—is interrupted by an usual visit from the FBY (Federal Bureau of Yeast). FBY Agent Ames somehow suspects Sewell of knowing the whereabouts of Despoina, a mysterious woman who may have the key to the cure for the yeast virus still infecting underground survivors of the plague. 

Sam’s search for Despoina ultimately drives him deeper and deeper underground, with each new sub-level introducing him to unexpected vistas, strange residents and deadly traps. He encounters a beach front simulated out of hewn rock, a migratory wave of lab rats filling the corridors in a synchronized cycle, and a specially-clad decontamination crew freezing anyone suspected of harboring a yeast infection. 

A few instances of bubbly pox aside, this tale skirts the boundaries of conventional bio-horror. The yeast component and the fungal subsistence of the survivors sets it aside from the expected genre tropes, but the burgeoning intrusion of magic breaks all the conventions.

Wicca are people who know things without being told.

Sam develops an affinity towards Despoina, who is revealed to be the high priestess of a Wiccan cult. Sam’s own unlikely connection to Wicca unfolds through knowledge he seemingly unlocks at random, sketchily explained as ancestral memories bubbling up into his consciousness. At convenient moments, he displays previously unknown talents in mind-control and telepathy. These deus ex machina escapes tend to undermine the suspense of individual scenes by pulling out the rug from underneath the novel’s established parameters.

To reach the innermost level of the underground maze (a command center office conceived for use by the President of the United States during a nuclear attack), Sam discovers and initiates a matter transmitter, a forerunner to the Star Trek molecular transporter, to beam himself to his final destination—undeterred even by a series of dramatic test failures.

Too bad we can’t really fly on broomsticks.

After struggling with the laborious downward trek through multiple setbacks, dangerous pitfalls and hostile occupants, Sam would be perfectly reasonable to ask himself the question, “Why didn’t I know about this sooner?

Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons, cited the book (among a rather lengthy list of other titles) as an inspiration for the game [thanks, Wikipedia!], acknowledging the latent role-playing DNA embedded in the text.

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